As PubliCola first reported, when a gunman shot bus driver Deloy Dupuis downtown in August, both of the cameras that could have recorded the incident were broken. The issue, Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer told us, was a "hard drive error." Several days later, Metro confirmed that maintenance funding for cameras has stagnated since 2008, even as the number of cameras on buses have increased (525 Metro buses, or about 40 percent, are equipped with cameras).
In response to the news, King County Executive Dow Constantine ordered an "immediate review of the status and maintenance of all on-board security cameras."
In a memo to Constantine late last month, Metro general manager Kevin Desmond said the review had concluded that according to a "comprehensive review of all on-board camera system components," 15 percent of cameras weren't working. Based on the rate of successful public-records request for camera downloads, the actual failure rate was between 20 and 25 percent.
One factor Metro blames for the failure of nearly one in six of its on-board cameras? Vibration, which, "along with other factors can result in components of the system being inoperable at any given time."
Additionally (if that didn't sufficiently inspire your confidence), "There is currently no way to monitor system operability without physically inspecting every coach," a process that takes 15 minutes per bus (or 131 hours to inspect all 525 buses—once).
According to documents PubliCola obtained through a records request, the main problems with the cameras were:
DVR malfunctions (24 buses, or 4.6 percent, had DVRs that weren't working);
Hard drive malfunctions (35 buses, or 6.7 percent, had hard drives that weren't working);
Cameras that were "inoperable" (36 buses, or 6.9 percent, were simply broken);
Missing screws (72 buses, or 13.7 percent, lacked one or more mounting screws);
And nonexistent audio (27 buses, or 5 percent, couldn't record sound).
Other cameras didn't work because of problems like faulty wiring, unspecified "mechanical hardware" problems, broken lenses, vandalism, broken LED lights, lack of power, and faulty camera adjustment.
Metro, according to Desmond's memo, plans to develop a preventive maintenance program for cameras and start checking whether their red and green indicator lights (which tell whether a unit is on and recording, respectively) are working as part of routine maintenance every 6,000 miles a bus is on the road. However, the memo concludes, "100 percent reliability is likely neither practical nor feasible regardless of the resources invested."
And, more ominously: "Improving upon the current 85 percent reliabilitywill require more resources and it is important that we consider this as part of our overall financial situation."
Metro, of course, could be facing service cuts of up to 17 percent if the state legislature doesn't give King County the authority to ask for new revenue; improvements to the agency's camera systems would likely come after preserving service. We have a call out to a Metro spokesman to find out how the agency plans to balance those priorities.
In the meantime, don't assume bus cameras will protect you.